When Debra Newell met the man of her dreams online, more than a few people in her life cautioned her that her new husband, John Meehan, might not be as perfect as he seemed. In the new scripted Bravo show, Dirty John, based on the true story of Newell and Meehan's relationship and the hit Los Angeles Times podcast of the same name, Newell's family members try in vain to separate her from Meehan. One of those family members is her nephew, Toby, who attempts to protect his aunt from Meehan's manipulations. Is Toby from Dirty John based on a real person in Newell's life?
Just as in the scripted version of the story, the real-life Debra Newell had a nephew looking out for her, though his name wasn't Toby. Named Shad Vickers, he had an especially close relationship with his aunt. As explained in the Los Angeles Times series on the story:
"Shad and Debra had always been close. For years he had thought of her as a second mother. Their bond was forged by a shared experience of unhealable horror. When Shad was a boy in 1984, as his parents were splitting up, his father shot his mother to death and went to prison. The victim was Cindi, Debra’s older sister."
As a result of this tragedy, Newell became a surrogate mother to Vickers. The same report states that Newell "brought [Vickers] on family vacations. She paid for his football and track leagues, which gave the traumatized boy some focus and release. She gave him a job in her furniture warehouse. She stuck with him during the years his rage and confusion were at their worst, during the brawls and scrapes with the law." And by the time Vickers was an adult with children of his own, he just wanted to see his aunt happy, which meant that he was more willing than Newell's own children to give Meehan a chance.
But his suspicion became aroused when, during a visit to his aunt's house, Vickers witnessed Meehan's propensity for violence firsthand. Referencing Newell's daughter Jacquelyn, called Veronica in the Bravo series, Meehan said “I could take her out from a thousand yards," per The Los Angeles Times . The scene is recreated in the scripted show, and shows that Vickers thought that wasn't a particularly funny thing to joke about. And, according to the same report, after he became involved with the private detective Newell's daughters had hired to dig up information about Meehan's past, and called his aunt to warn her that her husband wasn't who he said he was, Vickers became the target of Meehan's ire.
“Why don’t you simply go away,” Meehan texted him, according to The LA Times. “You’re not invited here. You come near and I call the cops. … Worry about your own miserable life and I’ll worry about Debbie, who is a lot closer to me than you can ever imagine. You won’t win this.” In another text in the exchange reprinted in the LA Times, Meehan said "You don’t have an aunt anymore. Get it? … I ain’t going nowhere and neither is she. Stay away from the house. Accidents do happen. Again, Deb wants nothing to do with you and if you were on fire I wouldn’t piss on you to help you out.” After the threats from Meehan, and Newell's seeming reluctance to leave him, Vickers decided to keep his distance.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Meehan, who claimed to be an anesthesiologist who had worked with Doctors Without Borders, was really a drug addict and con man with a history of violence. And a final showdown between Meehan and Newell's family occurred when he attacked Newell's youngest daughter, Terra, in the parking lot of her condo complex in 2016. The Times reports that Meehan stabbed Terra before she managed to gain control of the knife and stab her stepfather multiple times, once through his left eye and into his brain. Meehan died when Newell, still legally his wife, elected to remove him from life support. Vickers told the Los Angeles Times of the incident, “The last person on Earth I’d ever think would send John to hell would be Terra.”
How much Toby's storyline on the scripted Dirty John, which premieres Sunday, Nov 25, will mimic Vickers' real life remains to be seen. But he's an important catalyst of Meehan's volatility, and his confrontation with his aunt's husband provides the first glimpse listeners of the podcast got of Meehan's true nature.
John Meehan may have wrecked some havoc during his time on earth, but Debra Newell and her family still came out on top.